Twisting the traditionally British: must see exhibitions this Spring

Posted on by Beyond Bespoke

With a wealth of free time appearing in the Easter holidays, desperate to be filled with entertainment, and with more outdoorsy days out on the horizon due to the warmer weather, fill the void with British art exhibitions. Ranging from meditations on the evolving meaning of the countryside, to retrospective celebrating the (vastly differing) artistic offerings of GF Watts and the colourful abstract art of Vanessa Bell, there is something to satisfy everyone’s cultural taste buds.

Creating the Countryside: Thomas Gainsborough to Today (1600–2017)
England’s green and pleasant land, an inseparable concept from the country itself, is an ideal subject for picturesque landscape painting. But it has only recently transformed into an elevated subject in the artistic hierarchy, risen from the ranks below the prestige of historical subjects and portraiture. This exhibition will illustrate the movement of the genre over a period of 350 years, our now idealised notions of rural life is mostly thanks to portrayals by artists like Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable. Now, the idyll that is rural life is a large part of how we think about Britain.

Far from being limited to musings on landscape by artist’s centuries past, the gallery has brought tradition right up to date by including works by contemporary artists. Creating the Countryside explores how artists have shaped the vision of rural life and landscape, offering a new perspective on the countryside and its expression in contemporary art and society. Life is often said to imitate art, but how our mind-set and visions of the picturesque rolling hills of the countryside is shown to be visually changing, and this can be interpreted to reflect the changing artistic, social and political forces, and what it means to connect to and be a part of a country. Works by traditional artists including Thomas Gainsborough, Claude Lorrain, George Stubbs and Stanley Spencer are joined by pieces from contemporary artists such as Mat Collishaw, Sigrid Holmwood, Hilary Jack, Ingrid Pollard and Grayson Perry, whose interpretation presents a clear difference. At Compton Verney from 18 March – 18 June 2017.

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Constable & McTaggart
Another exhibition exploring individualised visions of nature, with this one in Edinburgh juxtaposing two masters of British landscape painting, John Constable and William McTaggart. A masterpiece of British art, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831) by John Constable, is displayed beside a powerful and emotive Scottish landscape paintings: William McTaggart’s The Storm (1890). Constable’s work was a source of inspiration for McTaggart, on an artistic and personal level throughout much of his career, both on an artistic and personal level, and the display will explore the transformative influence of his artistic practice and technique.

Sketching from nature was an essential aspect of Constable’s working practice, regularly making on the spot oil studies as a direct response to the ever-changing landscape and fleeting weather. With his acute observation of nature and extraordinary speed of execution, Constable brought an unparalleled inventiveness and technical brilliance to the medium. His dedication to painting outdoors would have strongly appealed to McTaggart, who adopted the artist’s habit of using flickering white highlights as a painterly tool that illuminated the landscape. Above all, his study of Constable’s oil sketches, with their defining qualities of freshness, movement, light and air, liberated McTaggart’s brush and technique. McTaggart’s loose, remarkably dynamic brushwork was a distinctive feature of his style. In The Storm, figures struggle desperately to push out a rowing boat amid the surf. In the distance a sail-less fishing dinghy veers perilously towards the rocks. For McTaggart, the Scottish landscape was a place where people negotiated their existence with nature. At the Scottish National Gallery from 8 Apr 2017 – 25 Mar 2018.

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A Life in Art: GF Watts 1817-1904
This exhibition at the Watts Gallery will offer a chronological journey through the esteemed artist’s illustrious life, which will be illustrated by some of his most exquisite drawings, preparatory studies and compositional sketches to reflect every aspect of his artistic output. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of GF Watts’ birth, the gallery brings together highlights of his career. Little-known drawings from Watts Gallery Trust’s collection make the case for why his contemporary Frederic Lord Leighton declared him as ‘England’s Michelangelo’, while more elaborate paintings are used to provide insight into his creative process. By emphasising significant points in his seventy-year career, this intimate show will tell the story of Watts and his rise to prominence. Often Watts’s slight, delicate drawings sowed the first seed for more elaborate paintings or sculptures, illuminating the trajectories of these finished works and allowing for intriguing glimpses into Watts’s creative processes. At Watts Gallery from 28 February – 5 November 2017.

True to Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920’s and 30’s
This exhibition shines a light on some of the astounding figurative work that was produced in the early 20th century. The works displayed, unusually showcase a myriad of styles that are unified by a desire to realistically portray the surroundings. Harold Williamson’s Spray depicts a modern woman on her swimwear and cap sat on a rocky shoreline, shielding herself from the lapping shore. Her body is suspended in a perfect reactionary moment, with muscles outlined in the summer light as the rugged, natural forms of the coast surround her.

True to Life will focus on the hard-edged style of artists such as Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, Meredith Frampton, Harold Harvey, Bernard Fleetwood Walker and Dod Procter, who were major figures in the 1920s and 1930s.The first ever visual survey of this subject, the exhibition will demonstrate the breadth and depth of the art of the period, bringing together 70 paintings by a generation of hugely talented artists whom art history has tended to side-line, as the figurative tradition they represent has been overshadowed by the more dominant abstraction of Modernism. In the last decade, these artists have begun to be rediscovered. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art on from 1 July – 29 October 2017.

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Fashion on the Ration: 1940’s Street Style
World War II’s austerity measures affected clothing too, leaving the British public to adapt their fashions accordingly. With extensive rationing in place, the make-do-and-mend attitude of the period produced innovative solutions in fashion. This exhibition provides an immersive insight into the past, displaying accessories, photographs, film, artworks, interviews and clothing, sparking the imagination of what the lives of men and women were like during wartime Britain. Everyday objects offer an intimate view into the identity of individuals and how they coped and made do whilst traditional home comforts suffered.

The exhibition includes key pieces of uniform, items from the utility fashion ranges introduced in 1941 to provide fairness in fashion and examples of marketing ingenuity on the part of wartime retailers, such as gas mask handbags and luminous blackout buttons.  From ‘onesies’ to wear in the air raid shelter to jewellery created from aeroplane parts, Fashion on the Ration looks at how fashion survived and even flourished under the strict rules of rationing in 1940s Britain, often in new and unexpected ways. This exhibition explores how men and women found new ways to dress as clothes rationing took hold. Displays of original clothes from the era, including military uniforms and functional fashion, reveal a realistic comprehension of life on the home front in wartime Britain. Exhibition at IWM North in Manchester from 27 May 2016 – 1 May 2017.

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Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr
In 1970, Martin Parr, a student at Manchester Polytechnic, was introduced to the work of Tony Ray-Jones. For the ambitious young photographer, the impression was long-lasting; the unusual images, humorous yet traced with melancholy, were a major inspiration behind his work. Intrigued by the eccentricities of English social customs, Tony Ray-Jones spent the latter half of the 1960s travelling across England, photographing what he saw as a disappearing way of life, possessing a unique ability for documenting English identity.

Within two years of Ray-Jones’ death, Parr began working on a project directly inspired by him. Fascinated by the variety of non-conformist chapels he encountered in rural Yorkshire, he shot a seldom-seen series of work, entitled The Non-Conformists, in Hebden Bridge and the surrounding Calder Valley. These early black and white images have previously only ever been exhibited in Hebden Bridge itself and at the Camerawork Gallery for a brief spell in 1981. Shown here beside works from the Tony Ray-Jones archive, there are clear parallels between the two photographers. Parr saw the images as epitomising England, due to the contrast and subtle seedy eccentricity. At The Bowes Museum in Durham from 25 February – 7 May 2017.

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Vanessa Bell (1879-1961)
Widely acclaimed as a central figure of the Bloomsbury Group, the modernist painter Vanessa Bell was pivotal in twentieth century British art, inventing a new language of visual expression. Muse to fellow artists such as Roger Fry, sister of Virginia Woolf, mastermind of the idyllic Bloomsbury life at Charleston, Bell’s artistic reputation has long been overshadowed by her family life and romantic entanglements. A radical innovator in the use of abstraction, colour and form, Bell will be presented in a new light in her first major exhibition. Approximately 100 paintings, ceramics, fabrics and photographs are organised thematically, and will display her work in the genres of portraiture, still life and landscape and explore her movement between the fine and applied arts, focusing on her most distinctive period of experimentation in the 1910s.

In 1912, alongside such notable names as Picasso and Matisse, Bell exhibited her work in the influential Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition at the Grafton Galleries, London, a landmark show organised by Roger Fry. Bell had her first solo exhibition at the Omega Workshops in 1916, and another at London’s Independent Gallery in 1922. Bell’s portraits are intense with bold colour, her sitters anchored in space in adventurous ways. The genres of still life and landscape were likewise daringly revamped, as Bell incorporated Fauvism and Cubism into her evolving vision. One of the first artists in Britain to experiment with abstraction, in 1914, Bell soon returned to figuration, but incorporated her strengthened understanding of composition and colour into her later work, which featured daring new ways of seeing and picturing the female subject. Exhibition shown at Dulwich Picture Gallery from 8 February – 4 June 2017.

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